THREE-AND-A-HALF (DEATH) STARS
Remember that giant plot hole in 1977’s “Star Wars: Episode IV,” the one about the Death Star being far too easy to blow up?
Turns out that was intentional. In “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” we learn that it was secretly built into the Death Star by scientist Galen Erso, whose goal was to give the Rebel Alliance some hope of defeating it — and the Galactic Empire at large — to atone for his role in designing the planet-killing weapon.
In “Rogue One’s” gloomy opening flashback we meet Erso, his wideeyed daughter Jyn and, eventually, a host of ragtag new characters who help this first-ever non-episodic Star Wars film feel genuinely populated — if also a bit padded out.
From the absence of the bracing, yellow-on-black opening crawl to the film’s relentless speechifying and whiplash course-corrections, it’s easy to see “Rogue One” as a glorified corporate branding exercise.
It’s an enjoyable, thoughtful and immaculately produced one that continues the diverse, forward-looking casting of last year’s excellent “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens.” But it’s a branding exercise nonetheless.
The real problem for Disney — which reportedly spent $200 million on the film and now plans to release a Star Wars movie every year for the foreseeable future — is that non-fans might care even less about it. If you’re not already deep in the saga, it comes off like a flashy war flick that threatens to get tangled in its own narrative turnarounds.
Of course, millions are invested in Star Wars, and “Rogue One” is the direct prequel to a film that set the template for the last four decades of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. That’s selling point enough for most.
“Rogue One” starts with a flashback to Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) attempting to protect his family after Imperial Director Orson Krennic (an exquisitely chilly Ben Mendelsohn) tracks him down on a remote farm. Galen is captured and his wife killed, but the resourceful Jyn escapes to be saved and then raised by grizzled rebel Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
We meet Jyn (played as an adult by Felicity Jones) again as the Alliance rescues her from the Empire’s dingy Wobani labor camp before delivering her to the Rebel base on Yavin 4 — its lush setting impressively recreated from the 1977 original.
Given her parentage, Jyn is recruited by Rebel leaders to track down her father and put an end to the Empire’s shadowy new super-weapon. Along with Rebel lifer Cassian Andor (a brooding Diego Luna) and wry, reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO (voiced with humorous restraint by Alan Tudyk), Jyn is quickly bound for the holy, vaguely Middle-Eastern desert moon of Jedha. There she’ll reckon with her past, learn about her
future and pick up some unexpected compatriots along the way.
The script takes pains to give Jyn choices and agency, and her transformation from reluctant captive to leader feels earned. Defected Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (a wiry Riz Ahmed) and the blind-mystic Force-devotee Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen, in one of Western science fiction’s few meaty roles for an Asian actor) add dimension and interest to the otherwise thin, pretzel-like plot.
It’s thrilling to see “Episode IV”-era technology and citizens realized in so many gritty, hyper-detailed ways, since children of the original trilogy (including director Gareth Edwards) have fantasized about it for decades. We always knew the sprawling margins of the Star Wars universe held untold pleasures, and Edwards delivers them. Instead of dropping tantalizing glimpses of their exotic charms, he brings solid, unblinking looks at hosts of new creatures and worlds. The special effects wizards behind the scenes earned every digit on their paychecks.
And certainly, it’s thrilling to see so much gray area in a Star Wars plot. The line between freedom fighter and terrorist is, rightly, quite blurry, and any number of parallels can be drawn between “Rogue One’s” story and terrifying realworld events.
But given the prominent callbacks to stock characters, phrases and situations from the saga (hello, Stormtrooper dis- guises!), Star Wars fans will practically feel Disney’s fingers in their wallets.
The real question: Is that sin enough to obscure the inherent virtue of the longoverdue diversity of the cast? Are the gorgeously realized worlds and menagerie of alien species sturdy enough to justify two hours of this agreeable offshoot?
For all its high points, “Rogue One” misses the grandeur of the series’ main arc — which helped give “The Force Awakens” much of its momentum and mythic heft. It lacks the sense of having much at stake beyond the fleeing emotions of its characters, likable as they may be.
Its comforting sound effects, iconic silhouettes and expertly rendered battles only occasionally add up to more than pleasant time-passers with predictable conclusions. In fact, in moments where the film recreates classic characters, such as Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, or the brief scenes with Darth Vader himself, the unsettling digital seams and strained dialogue (provided in the latter by original voice actor James Earl Jones, who sounds every bit his 85 years) undermine the gravitas.
If the overall solidity of “Rogue One” is a sign of Disney’s quality control on upcoming Star Wars films, fans are in good hands. George Lucas’ lame, cartoonish prequels are starting to feel far, far away indeed.
“Rogue One” is better than those by a long shot, but after the high bar set by last year’s “Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” simply being better than the prequels isn’t good enough anymore.
Felicity Jones stars as rebel Jyn Erso, who is tasked with putting an end to the Empire’s shadowy new super-weapon in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
Rebels battle the Galactic Empire on the tropical, WWII-inspired planet of Scarif in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” Provided by Lucasfilm Ltd.